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Ever Wonder Why US Judges Wear Black Robes?

Posted by Writing PIs on May 18, 2014

Today we’re posting an excerpt from our June 2014 book, A Lawyer’s Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms, which touches on a wide variety of topics, such as: History of trials, steps of civil and criminal trials, types of courts/types of law firms, players in courtroom, lawyers and technology, recommended legal films, dress codes in the courtroom and much more.

While writing about dress codes in the courtroom, we stumbled upon some interesting history about US judges and how they came about to wear stately black robes.

Book Excerpt: Why Judges Wear Black Robes

US Supreme Court, 1953

In an article Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for The Smithsonian in 2013, she stated that little is known as to why American judges wear plain black judicial robes. Colonial judges in England wore robes, a tradition carried on in America, but the English judges wore colorful robes and ornate, powdered wigs, traditions not adopted in the new United States.

The First Supreme Court

The first US Supreme Court apparently wore somewhat colorful attire — for example, one of the first US Supreme Court Justices, William Cushing, was painted in his official portrait wearing a black and red robe with white borders, as well as a white-powdered wig.

Supreme Court Justice William Cushing

Supreme Court Justice William Cushing

Maybe Thomas Jefferson had something to do with judges toning down their sartorial styles as Jefferson immensely disliked the English judges’ pompous style of dress, saying there shouldn’t be “any needless official apparel,” especially “the monstrous wig which makes the English judges look like rats peeping through bunches of oakum.” Tell us what you really think, Thomas Jefferson.

Basic Black

By 1801, when John Marshall became chief justice, the justices all wore stately black.

As we all have seen firsthand in courtrooms, or in film, most federal and state judges in the US today continue to wear simple black robes. Justice O’Connor views this as symbolic that the judges share a common responsibility in upholding the Constitution and the rule of law. There are a few exceptions to this basic-black dress style, however, such as the Maryland Court of Appeals’ judges who wear red, and the judges of the Delaware Supreme Court who, on ceremonial occasions, add red sashes or baldrics to their robes.

Mixing It Up with Tradition

What’s interesting is that this tradition of black robes hasn’t been dictated by anything other than tradition.  There is no dress code for US judges and justices…so it’s probably no surprise there’s been the occasional mix-up, by mistake or on purpose.  Such as in 1969 when Justice Hugo Black returned to the bench without his robe on and sat on the bench, wearing his street clothes, for the remainder of the court session. To this day, no one knows if he forgot to put on his robe, or if something happened to his robe, and there are no notes in the record explaining the lack of robes.

Justice O’Connor also tells a story about Chief Justice William Rehnquist one day surprising the rest of the justices by showing up with gold stripes sewn onto one arm of his robe. He explained to the bewildered justices that he’d recently seen a Gilbert & Sullivan opera in which the lord chief justice wore a robe with gold stripes, so he wanted to have the gold stripes on his robes!

Mixing It Up in Your Story

There’s all kinds of things a writer can do with a judge’s robes in stories — maybe it’s a quirky judge who sews a badge on his robe, or a judge who decides black is too depressing and accessorizes it with a flashy scarf, or ? If a character questions the judge’s reason, he or she can state unequivocally that there is no dress code for judges, only tradition!

End of Excerpt

Click on image to go to Amazon page

Click on image to go to Amazon page

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